The importance of the Kurdish struggle

[This is the edited text of a talk presented at the Melbourne launch of the pamphlet The Kurdish Freedom Struggle Today, September 29, 2015.]

This pamphlet aims to provide a short introduction to the Kurdish question for non-Kurdish readers in Australia. The focus is on Turkey and Rojava (the Kurdish majority liberated zone in northern Syria) where the struggle is being led by the revolutionary democratic wing of the Kurdish movement, i.e., the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). This is a mass struggle, involving hundreds of thousands, even millions of people.

Inescapably, there is little in the pamphlet about Iraq and Iran. It also doesn’t deal in any detail with Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s current war against the Kurds as he schemes to get a majority for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the November 1 parliamentary elections.

The articles by myself and Tony Iltis aim to provide essential information and perspective. Apart from that we felt it was important to let key figures speak for themselves so readers could get a feel for the struggle.

So we have the eloquent and powerful 2013 Newroz (Kurdish New Year) message from jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas’s luminous vision of a new Turkey. Then there are the inspiring interviews with HDP co-leader Figen Yüksekdag and the two YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) commanders which show very clearly the tremendous role women are playing in the fight on both sides of the border.

The final item touches on Australia's minor but shameful role in the conflict, that is, its criminalisation of the PKK through its inclusion on the Australian government's list of terrorist organisations.

I don’t want to repeat everything that is in the pamphlet — you can read that for yourselves — but I do want to stress several aspects, especially in regard to Rojava.

Why Kurdish struggle is special

All around the world, in myriad struggles, people are fighting against oppression and exploitation, for a life fit for human beings. Obviously, as socialists we support them all. But what makes the Kurdish freedom struggle today so special?

The answer, I think, is that the Kurdish freedom struggle in Turkey and Rojava has a clear goal — the creation of an inclusive, secular, radically democratic, feminist, ecological society. It has a revolutionary leadership which is worthy of the heroism and sacrifice of the people, and a strategy to get there.

Apart from the Kurdish struggle so much of what we hear about the Middle East involves sectarian and intercommunal violence. The Islamic State, of course, embodies this in spades with its murderous intolerance and extremely backward ideology.

The Middle East is a tremendously rich mosaic of different ethnic and religious communities. Fundamentalists of all stripes want to destroy this beautiful diversity and through ruthless violence impose a dreadful uniformity on society.

This is clearly the case in Syria and Iraq, where the IS fanatics control a large territory.

It is also the case in Turkey where the Erdogan regime — following in the footsteps of every Turkish government since the founding of the republic in 1923 — seeks to imprison the whole country in the straitjacket of a mythical Sunni Muslim "Turkish nation". Kurds, Alevis, Armenians, Assyrians, Yazedis and a host of other ethnicities and faiths all endure discrimination and oppression.

Celebrating diversity

The progressive Kurdish movement has explicitly repudiated such reactionary nationalism. In his Newroz message Öcalan puts forward a revolutionary perspective in these very moving words:

We shall unite against those who want to divide and make us fight one another. We shall join together against those who want to separate us.

Those who cannot understand the spirit of the age will end up in the dustbin of history. Those who resist the current will fall into the abyss.

The peoples of the region are witnessing a new dawn. The peoples of the Middle East are weary of enmity, conflict, and war. They want to be reborn from their own roots and to stand shoulder to shoulder . . .

The truths in the messages of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed are being implemented in our lives today with new tidings. People are trying to regain what they have lost.

The great success of the HDP in the June 7 elections was based on this approach. With its candidates and its platform it sought to be the party of the oppressed and exploited across the whole country.

And in Rojava diversity is built into the very foundations of the revolution. Of course, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group here but conscious efforts are being made all the time to engage and incorporate Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen and so on into the self-governing structures of the cantons.

In Cizire canton, for example, where the population comprises Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians (Syriac Christians) and Armenians, the official languages are Kurdish, Arabic and Aramaic and all communities have the right to teach and be taught in their native language.

Apart from morality, this is a matter of life and death for the Rojava Revolution. The forces of darkness — whether the IS or the Turkish government and its agents — are constantly trying to turn communities against each other. If the revolution cannot adequately counter this it will fail.

Rojava Revolution is humane

The IS killers have gained worldwide notoriety for their barbaric treatment of prisoners — and their public celebration of it. Captives have been beheaded, burned alive and shot in mass executions.

The YPG (People’s Protection Units) and YPJ have repudiated such inhuman behaviour. Prisoners are treated correctly. Of course, individual lapses are always possible but the Rojava authorities have an exemplary record on the humane treatment of prisoners.

The rules of conduct of the YPG/YPJ define as war crimes the following: "Acts of distortion against the march of civilisation, democracy and the struggle for freedom" and "Use of cruelty and violence outside the concept of legitimate protection."

The YPG/YPJ have also signed the Geneva Conventions on not using soldiers under the age of 18 and they have discharged many combatants found to be underage. However, one has to put things in perspective here: When a 15- or 16-year-old has seen family members killed or when IS attacks a village threatening to kill everyone, it is entirely natural that he or she may pick up a gun and join the resistance.

Women in the forefront

All great revolutions have seen women drawn into the struggle to varying degrees. But I think it is true to say that the role women are playing in the Kurdish freedom struggle in Turkey and in Rojava is unprecedented in history.

In Rojava women have their own armed force, the YPJ, making up at least a third of the combatants. They are also in the YPG. Women are combatants at all levels, including in the command. They have furnished hundreds of martyrs to the struggle.

Women in Rojava are fighting for a new society in which real gender equality prevails. The Rojava Charter (constitution) says: "Women have the inviolable right to participate in political, social, economic and cultural life . . . Men and women are equal in the eyes of the law. The Charter guarantees the effective realization of equality of women and mandates public institutions to work towards the elimination of gender discrimination."

In Afrin canton in 2013, for instance, women made up 65% of the administration. The prime minister is a woman, Hevi Ibrahim.

People know what they are fighting for

We do not need to idealise anything. Rojava society is patriarchal but under the pressure of war, revolution and a revolutionary leadership, things are changing. Young women cannot be stopped by their fathers or brothers from joining the YPJ or the Asayish, the public order force. While not everyone is on side and some people are disenchanted, the revolution has inspired and involved whole layers of the population.

I especially like the photo by Yann Renoult on the back cover of our pamphlet. This shows a revolutionary Kurdish family in Rojava looking out with what seems to me to be hope and determination and courage. There is Öcalan's image on the wall; all the couple's sons and daughters had joined the defence forces as teenagers. One son had fallen in battle at the age of 18. Their parents were behind them, especially their mother said the photographer.

Yes, Rojava is menaced on all sides but the people know what they are fighting for and that gives the revolution a tremendous strength.

I hope this pamphlet can help spread awareness of the Kurdish freedom struggle, build support for it and play a role in the development of a more effective solidarity movement here in Australia.